Disney released its live-action remake of Mulan this fall. The movie was met with criticism from both China and America, despite efforts to synergize Western and Eastern elements of the Disney-adapted Chinese story. 

Members of the Asian diaspora, audiences in China, and the Disney audience base as a whole all expected something different out of the movie. Producer Jason T. Reed told Collider.com that filmmakers “dug in to try and make sure that [they were] addressing [all] of those audiences in a thoughtful way.” But despite Disney’s best efforts, the film sparked international controversy. Many decried the movie’s end credits, which thank government entities in China’s Xinjiang province, where Uyghur internment camps are located. Others criticized Hollywood’s promotion of faux Chinese values, which is reflected in popular Chinese site Douban’s 2.5/5 star rating. 

When Walt Disney Studios released their animated “Mulan” in 1998, the film’s titular character introduced audiences worldwide to the first Asian main character in a Disney production. Mulan became an empowering symbol — albeit a rare one — of Asian representation. She embodied a new kind of princess, one who didn’t sit around waiting to be rescued, but who took matters into her own hands. The film received criticism regarding its “Oriental” imaginations and patterns, but was also recognized as a monumental step toward increased Asian inclusion in popular American media. It transformed Mulan from her origin-story self, which saw countless iterations throughout Chinese history, to her contemporary persona.

“The animation really champions individual feminism,” says Kenny Ng, a film studies professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “There’s a struggle between the traditional Chinese understanding of Mulan as a warrior fighting for the country to protect her father and the animation that teaches girls to search for their identity.” 

“Who is That Girl I See?”

The earliest written texts containing Mulan came from the northern Chinese dynasties, which ruled between the 4th and 6th centuries, in the form of a folk ballad. The Ballad of Mulan circulated across China, gaining interpretations and adaptations in almost every known genre. Illusions and references to Mulan scattered throughout Chinese literature molded the character’s story into manifold forms. Storytellers transformed the details of her supposed hometown, family dynamic and personality. By the 17th and 19th centuries, even Chinese local history held entries about Mulan. While she was not a real historical figure, Mulan became very well known in China and Chinese-speaking regions. The Ballad of Mulan is still taught in language arts textbooks in Chinese public schools, according to Alan Dong, professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield and author of “Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States.”

“We all knew her story growing up. And in the contemporary period, Mulan is an icon for the political propaganda of women holding up half the sky,” says Dong. “When we talk about gender equality, she is a very obvious choice for that.” 

During the 19th century, a suspected English translation of the ballad emerged, according to Dong. The earlier 20th century saw some English stage adaptations of Mulan’s story. But the text that brought her name to a wider range of readers in the United States was Maxine Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, published in 1976. Disney’s animation at the end of the 20th century cemented Mulan as a household name. 

“The animation followed a clear pattern of Disney production, a Disney formula as coined by scholars, in which a very well known adventure story is adapted with songs and a humorous sidekick,” Dong says. “In terms of Mulan, Disney’s animation emphasizes her individualism. The theme song itself is about trying to find out who she is. While her reason for joining the army is to save her father, Mulan captured attention by consciously upholding female agency.”

While cultural aspects of the original story were watered down or altered from pre0modern times to the contemporary era, Mulan has increasingly embodied female empowerment. Modern adaptations portray her as a strong female warrior who makes bold choices which defy the male-dominated society that she inhabits.

Mulan (2020)

On March 30, 2015, Disney announced that it had begun developing a live-action of the 1998 Mulan animation to be released in 2020. Mulan (2020) claimed to reinterpret the animation as an authentic, Chinese telling of the tale. 

“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” Niki Caro, the director, said to Xinhua News Agency. Disney was forced to confront how it would freshly reproduce such a well-known story that simultaneously appeased Chinese and Western audiences. The film’s reception would heavily depend upon the ease and efficacy with which the movie would negotiate cultural interactions and synergies between the East and the West.  In addition, as China is Hollywood’s biggest foreign market, Disney was acutely aware of the business and political calculations it needed to make regarding Chinese government relations. Mulan (2020)’s production team shared the script with Chinese officials and heeded the advice of Chinese consultants. As a result, Mushu the comedic dragon sidekick, the animated movie’s lively songs and romantic interest Li Shang were cut to make the story more ‘traditionally Chinese.’ The filmmakers also casted Chinese stars Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen and Gong Li for global engagement, which was met with mixed reactions. A piece in The Guardian emphasized how Disney blew its chance to evoke an unconventional, powerful female character by instead playing into Chinese beauty standards in a misguided attempt to appease the Chinese market.

“[I] always dreamed of seeing what I loved about Chinese martial arts films in more widespread media. I dreamed of that entire Chinese cast and seeing a woman warrior take to the screen as the lead,” says Chinese-American flutist and martial artist Leanna Keith on her blog reviewing the film. Keith, who had auditioned for the lead role in the film and made it to the live audition round, says it was “deeply, deeply problematic.”

“Casting these international stars affected the film’s creativity because it made the story focus more on their appearance rather than their dynamic characters,” Ng says. “They ended up portraying flat individuals. … You don’t have really lively characters, even Mulan has very little depth and very flat patterns.”

Controversies and Consequences

Controversies surrounding the film arose even a year before “Mulan” (2020)’s release. A call to “boycott” the movie gained steam in 2019 when lead actress Liu Yifei reposted an image from the People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, which read in Mandarin, “I support Hong Kong police. You can beat me now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” This sparked global indignation; netizens accused Liu of supporting police brutality in Hong Kong. #BoycottMulan started trending, and many argued that Liu’s stance clashed with her portrayal of feminist symbol Mulan. San Francisco State University Asian American Studies Professor Valerie Soe participated in the boycott in response to Liu’s statement. 

“The actors have the right to believe and say whatever they want, but then the audience has the right to do whatever they want as far as not supporting [the actors],” Soe says. “The contradiction for me is that while they have the right to express their political views, they’re suppressing the rights of other people, specifically in Hong Kong.”

The film’s release was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It had not been released anywhere until September 2020, when it became available in limited international theaters and on Disney+ for a steep cost of $29.99. It initially garnered praise from U.S. reviewers as a major milestone for Asian representation on the big screen and women behind the camera. (Mulan’s $200 million budget is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman). Initial Chinese ratings, however, were tepid. One user wrote a review on the popular Chinese movie rating site Douban saying, “The shell was Chinese but the soul was still foreign. It was a foreign, superficial understanding of China.” Another review on WeChat criticized the film for missing the emotional point of the original “Ballad of Mulan” by turning the titular character from a courageous woman trapped in a cruel imperial system into a superhero possessing “qi.” “It looked like a business venture, a way of making money,” says Ng.

As viewers further scrutinized the film, they called out the film’s lack of representation off-screen; its production team consisted of a white director and costume designer, and four white screenwriters. Audiences also found that nine minutes into the film’s ten-minute end credits, the filmmakers thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, a region in China where up to a million Uyghur Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps. After the film’s controversial links with Xinjiang erupted in criticism overseas, the Chinese government ordered media outlets not to cover the release of “Mulan.” Disney’s Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said to CNN that recognition of the credits “has generated a lot of issues.”

“Hollywood is kind of in the crosshairs. It’s worse than it’s ever been, because on one hand, the American Congress is getting involved now and saying that Hollywood studios are pandering to China and making films that help China look good, which “Mulan” (2020) is an obvious case of. And on the other hand, there are issues of culture and national security,” says Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at the University of Southern California.

As with most foreign movies that gained access to China’s big screens, Disney’s “Mulan” attempts to cater to Chinese audiences and stringent government regulation. While Mulan (2020) may not single-handedly change the international cinema landscape, it serves as a useful case of the ever-changing dynamics of the U.S. and Chinese film industries. 

“The production of ‘Mulan’ has become so highly politicized that it is an exemplary instance where we find that popular culture and politics can hardly be completely separated,” says Dorothy Lau, professor of transnational cinema and culture at Hong Kong Baptist University.  

U.S.-China Relations in the Context of Cinema

The movies that have been most successful in China during recent years have actually all been Chinese films, not Western films. Out of the top 10 grossing films of all time in China, only “Avengers: Endgame” is a non-Chinese movie. Hollywood productions used to be routinely ranked among the top 10 movies of the year. But now, more and more Chinese blockbusters are created with high production values, complex storytelling and patriotic themes. 

“Chinese audiences don’t seem to have a necessity for Hollywood to tell their stories anymore,” says Rosen. China has been ambitious in using movies as a form of soft power to censor politically and socially sensitive narratives and to paint the country as a progressive place. The Chinese government has devoted an abundance of resources towards achieving this goal: Beijing has increased the number of movie theaters all over the country and invested in high-technological movie equipment. 

“It’s part of a trend where the U.S. and Hollywood try really hard to capitalize on this huge Chinese market and then figure out China is not interested in the same kind of movies necessarily,” says Soe. “There’s a lot more rhetoric about the cold war between China and the U.S. The current U.S. administration is very anti-China. So they’re throttling those connections.” 

Some of that discussion coincides with the outbreak of COVID-19, which has evoked much attention from not only the media, but also from politicians. The public relates discourse with “Mulan” to pandemic contestation between the various powers. 

“While cinema has been pretty insulated from the trade war, I think Chinese authorities are well aware that Donald Trump has no love for Hollywood. So hurting Hollywood is not something that’s going to bother Trump,” Rosen says. “Disney has been a very good partner with China. The Shanghai Disneyland seems to be the most profitable of all Disneylands, and they’re spending millions of dollars to upgrade their Hong Kong Disneyland. China generally feels that Disney is a good partner; it’s a family-friendly company.” 

But for Disney, and Hollywood as a whole, Mulan (2020)’s performance should be a lesson on the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of global affairs and public opinion. “They must be aware of how great the influence of movies is on politics. Politics and entertainment can no longer be totally separated,” Lau says. “They have so much overlap and impressions between one another. And because of social media, we know that nothing can be concealed.” 

Cover image: Disney